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!

More Beauty and the Beast thoughts: Be my guest

Sorry, I just really wanted to use one of those cheesy thematic post titles that I told you last week I wasn’t going to use.  Before I move on to other topics (such as, possibly, another Fantastic Beasts post next week, since the Blu-Ray is coming out tomorrow!), I want to share a few more observations about Beauty and the Beast  (the live-action Disney adaptation released earlier this month, as if I needed to clarify that).

  1. Last week I wrote about literacy, which crops up a number of times in the film, and I later posted on Facebook that the literacy issue is also an issue of wealth and poverty.  Many of Belle’s fellow townspeople would probably argue that they are too busy working to have time to read or even learn to read, and there’s also an access issue: clearly the town has a shortage of books and of educators (and the limited resources that do exist are allocated almost exclusively to boys).  Meanwhile, the Beast in his castle can afford a magnificent library and, as a member of the leisured class, has plenty of time to read the books it contains.  Maybe I’ve just read A Tale of Two Cities too many times, but the castle storming scene in this film had definite French Revolution overtones for me, especially when I remembered the Prince’s pre-curse ball we witnessed at the beginning of the film– lavish and luxurious almost to the point of being laughable, and very Marie Antoinette-style.  I don’t think the filmmakers were trying to make a political point necessarily–after all, the Beast isn’t really the bad guy, and it’s hard to pin down the exact time period (as it should be in a fairy tale)–but the contrast is definitely there.  Two more things to consider on this topic: a. The Enchantress is portrayed as an impoverished outcast.  b. On the other hand, it does appear that the Prince’s castle was a source of steady work for some people in the village.  We learn at the end of the film that both Mrs. Potts and Cogsworth were married to townspeople.
  2. If you’ve read my review of the Walt Disney World restaurant Be Our Guest, you know it really bothers me that in the original animated film, Belle doesn’t get to eat during that iconic song.  I argued that this results from the misguided idea that a fairytale princess could never be seen to eat because eating is somehow a coarse, unfeminine, embarrassing activity.  So I was happy to see that in the new film, Belle at least appears to be hungry (she frantically reaches for several dishes as they dance by), but disappointed that, in the end, she still doesn’t get to eat anything–and that she walks away from the table seemingly okay with that.
  3. Before the film was released, someone told me she’d heard that Belle has to save the Beast in the wolf attack scene.  This is not true.  The scene plays out almost identically to the parallel scene in the animated movie.  The Beast is perfectly capable of saving himself (he is a beast, after all), but Belle does have to help him get back to the castle.  So rather than an in-your-face attempt to make Belle a proper 21st-century feminist, this scene is actually a lovely example of two people caring for each other in a budding relationship (well, a relationship that’s about to bud).  Because Belle was already such a strong character in the animated version, there was really no need to update her to make her extra tough, so I’m glad there was no attempt to do so.  The reason Disney’s Belle is still one of my fictional role models is that she’s both brave and kind (like Disney’s 2015 Cinderella), capable and feminine.

Please continue to send me your thoughts about the movie!

The Witches and Italian nachos

This past weekend I set myself a new goal: to read one children’s book every weekend.  This will not only make a dent in the growing pile of books that, until yesterday, was on the floor of my home office (yesterday I bought and assembled a cheap but serviceable Target bookcase), but also, more importantly, it will help build my expertise in the ever-growing field of children’s literature, which I claim to know enough about to teach.

On Saturday and Sunday, I read The Witches by Roald Dahl.  This is only the third Roald Dahl book I’ve ever read, which I realize makes me a total children’s lit poser (a lot of things make me a children’s lit poser, but I’m working on that).  I am, however, familiar with the plots and themes of many of his other books, in some cases through movies (like Steven Spielberg’s recent The BFG).  The Witches is different from many of the books because it’s written in first person, and although nobody would mistake this for a realistic novel, I think Dahl draws a bit from his own upbringing as a person of Norwegian ancestry growing up in the UK.  I hope Grandmamma, a delightful character, is based on one of his real grandmothers.  Like many of Dahl’s books, this one makes you laugh at things that should probably terrify you (though some of Quentin Blake’s illustrations, which are usually just wacky, are genuinely frightening in this book), and it also contains elements of the classic morality tale–e.g., the boy who tortures small animals and gets turned into a mouse himself (though the kind protagonist also gets turned into a mouse, of course).  I think what struck me most about this book is how much it reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, which I read recently.  Gaiman’s work in general is often Dahl-esque, but I really see a resemblance between these two books.  Though The Witches  is sillier, both mingle humor and terror, both have curious and seemingly dauntless children as protagonists (well, that’s true of 75% of children’s literature), and both include female antagonists who seem sweet and polite on the surface but quickly reveal themselves to be malevolent, specifically to children.  There’s probably something psychoanalytic here–I’ll leave that to someone else to explore.

I briefly toyed with the idea of turning this into a themed blog and writing each week about the children’s book I had read the previous weekend.  I know that themed blogs tend to be more successful because readers know what to expect.  But I also know that I would miss writing those wonderful gut-spilling confessional pieces I like to post every few months, as well as writing about movies, events, academia, and Christian life.  So I’m not going to fundamentally change the nature of this blog, but I probably will include a short update most weeks about the children’s book I’ve read most recently.

Another regular feature I’d like to include is a brief spot about some food I’ve prepared recently, whether from a recipe or from my own invention–usually the former, since I’m not a particularly imaginative cook.  But I did come up with this one all by myself: Italian nachos.  I’m sure I’m not the only person to have invented something similar, but it was a new idea to me.  The story is this: I had some Tostitos and nothing to dip them in.  So I started dragging things out of my refrigerator and pantry.  My nachos ended up with the following toppings: shredded mozzarella, crumbled goat cheese, a spice blend left over from a recipe (it was actually more Indian, but Italian nachos are, by definition, multicultural anyway), oregano, cilantro, parsley, lime juice (this was a nod to traditional nachos; I could have used lemon juice to be more thematic), olive bruschetta, and sliced cherry tomatoes.  I microwaved it all for a minute, and the result was delicious.  Obviously, there are endless possible variations depending on what you have on hand, but I have one piece of advice: if you don’t have olive bruschetta, use a little bit of olive oil.  You need some oil to bind everything together.

So there you have it.  I recommend getting a copy of The Witches and making yourself some Italian nachos immediately.  I would not recommend enjoying both at once, however.  The Witches is a little gross.  (It’s Roald Dahl; what did you expect?)

This is going to make a good story.

Last Tuesday night–Wednesday morning, technically–between 2:00 and 4:00 am, I found myself driving around Bedford and Amherst counties, including brief stints on the Blue Ridge Parkway and the ominously named (and very dark and narrow) Father Judge Road north of Madison Heights.  I saw a lot of deer and a raccoon, and I almost hit a small waddling creature that I didn’t have time to identify.  This isn’t the place to go into why I was doing all this nocturnal driving, but I assure you that it was all legal and mostly safe, and I wasn’t up to anything unsavory.  My point in sharing about this adventure is that although I was in a constant state of frustration, with occasional moments of mild terror, a small part of me–the creative part–was having a good time, because it kept thinking, “This is going to make a good story later.”

Because I spend a large percentage of my waking time reading, watching, and interpreting stories (and some of my sleeping time dreaming stories–I had a really stressful one after going back to bed at 4:08 Wednesday morning), I tend to see my own life as a narrative, with some experiences standing out as particularly excellent story material.  I’m a pretty decent storyteller, I think (actually, someone told me that last week, and I was flattered), and I have to admit that I enjoy keeping an audience entertained and feel like I’ve failed when my stories don’t have the impact I’d imagined they would.  And of course, there’s always a temptation to make my stories a little bit funnier or more shocking by altering events a bit.  Telling stories always involves editing–deletion, highlighting, etc.–but I try to avoid crossing the line into fabrication, not least because I find it satisfying to think that my real life (just like your life, reader) is stranger than anything I could make up.  I don’t think it’s an accident that some of my favorite–and most popular–blog posts have simply been stories about stuff that happened to me, like when I almost choked on the fumes of some spicy soup I was cooking or when I got angry and went all Hulk in my office.

Another occupational hazard of being a storyteller, even an amateur one, is the compulsion to come up with a lesson at the end of every story.  So bear with me while I draw a spiritual parallel here: We can see our lives as a lot more bearable, exciting, and significant if we keep saying to ourselves, “This is going to make a good story later.”  One of the hallmarks of a Christian worldview is the idea that God has written and yet somehow still is writing a story in which our planet is a major setting and every human being is an important character.  The theological implications of this are too gigantic to even be broached in a short blog post like this, but I’m just asking you right now to think of yourself as a character in a story.  That means a number of things: the decisions you make are significant, you are significant, and there’s more story to come.  Isn’t that exciting?  Even more exciting than a 3:00 am drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway, I’d say.

Advent week 1: a Christmas post roundup

Considering my interest this year in finding practical ways to observe the rhythms of a healthy Christian life (e.g., giving up checking email on Sundays, taking a quarterly three-hour meditation “retreat”), you might think that I have a great plan to celebrate Advent.  I don’t.  I’m just going to do what I always do, which is to break out my Christmas decorations and music on December 1.  (I actually jumped the gun a little this year–I got my Christmas tea towels out yesterday.  And now for the big confession: I’ve been listening to the Celtic Holidays station on Pandora for weeks.)  But I have decided to write a Christmas post every Monday of the four weeks of Advent.  I have no idea what I’m going to write in most of these posts, but I’ll figure it out as I go.  Some of the posts may be better than others, but won’t that be more exciting than those chocolate Advent calendars that reveal the exact same square of bland chocolate every day?  I think so.

I feel a heavy, but probably totally imaginary, weight of expectation on my proverbial shoulders as I prepare to write these posts because I’ve always made a point of writing excellent Christmas posts ever since I began my blog in 2011, a tradition I’ve kept up even during periods when I’ve largely neglected to post  My first Christmas post , written just days after I started the blog, was short but profound.  Since then, I’ve written about topics as widely varying as A Christmas Carol adaptations, the school shooting that occurred in Newtown, CT, near Christmas in 2012 (a post I didn’t want to write but felt compelled to), Danny Kaye’s socks, a Charles Dickens Christmas story that’s NOT A Christmas Carol, and my bird ornaments.

In college, when I couldn’t figure out how to start a paper, I used to take up a page or more on introducing the topic, telling tangentially related anecdotes, and apologizing for what was to come.  By then, I was already well into my required page count!  I guess I haven’t changed much since then; I basically just did the blog version of that exact thing.  This post won’t be an entire waste of your time, however, if you click on the links in the preceding paragraph.  And I promise not to waste your time in my remaining three Advent posts (and my Boxing Day post!  It’s on a Monday this year).  When I next write to you, I’ll have all my bird ornaments up and will have listened to Harry Connick, Jr.’s When My Heart Finds Christmas (another vintage Penelope post topic) at least once.  See you then.

 

 

Is grit good?

This post is going to be fairly similar to one that I wrote a few weeks ago entitled “Satisfaction is not in my nature.”  Today I’m taking a slightly different approach to an issue, or constellation of issues, that I wrestle with a lot.

If you read a post I wrote about a year ago, “I am not fast,” you know that I’m a little cocky about having a high degree of what is, admittedly, an unglamorous character quality: endurance, persistence, tenacity, grit…whatever you want to call it.  Basically, it takes a lot to make me quit.  That last term, grit, has become a buzzword in psychology and education over the past few years.  Studies are now showing, or at least we’re being told that they are, that grit is a better indicator of success in college than IQ or even high school GPA.  And other studies are corroborating the common-sense conclusion that grit remains a useful characteristic in various areas of one’s life, including career and relationships.

So even though it’s not as exciting as being fast or amazingly creative or highly articulate, having grit has become a bit of a source of pride for me.  It’s closely related to a quality that I’ve often been complimented on since childhood: being disciplined.  With that one, it’s a little easier to see how I could start to become smug and feel morally superior to people who do hit the snooze button at least once before they wake up.

In several of my recent posts, I referred to a book I read recently, The Gift of Being Yourself by David G. Benner.  It’s actually the second book in Benner’s Spiritual Journey trilogy, of which I’m now reading the last book, Desiring God’s Will.  (For no strategic reason, I will be reading the first book, Surrender to Love, last–that’s just the order in which I acquired them.)  Benner has spent the first couple of chapters of Desiring God’s Will shattering my pride in being disciplined.  While he doesn’t completely discount the value of self-control (after all, it’s one of the fruits of the Spirit) he shows, from Scripture and common-sense observation, that discipline can lead to pride and rigidity and–most disturbingly–lead us to believe we don’t need God, and therefore cause us to pass ignorantly by the surprising blessings that God reserves for those who gladly participate in the fulfillment of his kingdom.

Having demolished my pride in being disciplined, Benner goes a step further in the section I read this morning and casts doubt on the unqualified value of grit (though he doesn’t use that word or refer to any of the recent scholarship on the topic).  Heretically (especially to American readers), Benner posits that there are times when it may be not only okay to quit, but even sinfully stubborn not to quit.  I need to go back and read the section again to make sure I really understand, but I think he’s right.  I can think of one situation in my recent life in which I probably should have given up on something a lot sooner than I did.  It makes me cringe to write that, but there it is.

As I’m reading this book, I keep thinking about Perelandra, the second novel in C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, and the Adam and Eve-like characters who lived on a floating island and had absolutely no control over where they went.  They just had to trust their creator.  Could I live like that?

Who am I?

I’m Jean Valjean.  Actually, this post is not about Les Miserables; I just thought I would create a fake segue from last week’s post to this one.  That line is one of the best moments in the musical, though.

This morning the topic of faculty convocation at my institution was “The Modern Identity Crisis.”  We do realize that this is now the postmodern era, but the title was a reference to a paradigm shift that occurred during the Enlightenment.  Broadly speaking, in ancient and medieval times, you were born into a certain family, class, and trade, and you didn’t worry about discovering who you were really meant to be.  (So that question in A Knight’s Tale, “Can a man change his stars?”–nobody was really asking it at that time period.  But they also weren’t listening to classic rock.  That movie is a fantasy, in case you weren’t sure.)  But in the modern period, the question of individual identity became paramount, and it’s only become more confusing as the world has become simultaneously more diverse and more homogenous.

In this post, I want to point out a few recent manifestations of the drive to self-define that may appear silly or harmless, but that are actually quite telling and potentially powerful.  One is the proliferation of assessment tools, ranging from research-based psychiatric tests to three-question quizzes on advertising webpages (“What’s your guest bathroom decorating style?”), designed to help us categorize ourselves and others.  Young adult literature fans very seriously discuss the implications of being in a particular Hogwarts (and now Ilvermorny) house or a certain faction in the dystopian world of Divergent, and each of these fandoms offers a variety of official and unofficial tests and quizzes for determining where one belongs.  Many people, including myself, never tire of talking about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicators and the rampant memes that lead us to identify ourselves with characters from various worlds (The Lord of the RingsThe Office, the Bible) based on MBTI. We give these assessment instruments so much power that they are almost like a postmodern version of divination.  Instead of looking to stars or tea leaves to tell us how are lives are going to turn out, or how to make decisions, we look at our personality types.

Our self-defining statements can also create limitations on who and what we are willing to be and do.  Some of these statements give us excuses for our perceived weaknesses (“English people don’t do math,” or vice versa); others allow us to feel superior to others (“Academics don’t watch football”).  And some of these statements, especially when made and believed by children and teenagers, can actually create deep-rooted habits that can shape the quality of a person’s life (“Nerds don’t do physical exercise”).

I’m not trying to be dire or dour.  I think it’s fun to discuss these things (as long-time readers of my blog know, I’m a Hufflepuff, and I’m also an ISFJ), but I’m afraid too many of us are limiting ourselves because we’re letting our categories determine our destinies.