Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Some Fan Studies Before "Fan Studies"

In the past, I've written about some of the classics of fan studies. In this post, I want to briefly highlight a few books that do not explicitly address fandom but nevertheless deserve mention as works of scholarship that have addressed the subject of devoted or enthusiastic audiences. For me, these works all had to do with reading; in the late 1980s, I was a newly-graduated English major, growing tired of great authors and works (I think I had read Moby Dick five times at that point), and becoming more and more interested in marginal aspects of literary studies: the physical nature of books, the business of publishing, and, especially, the history of readers. To my astonishment, I found a number of fairly recent works on those subject. I wasn't studying fandom when I first encountered these books, but once I did start to think about fans a bit later, in the context of popular music, the book's arguments and stories came back to me, providing a rush of intriguing parallels, echoes, and connections. Rousseau readers and Springsteen fans, for example, separated by centuries, seemed to be thinking in similar ways--how could that be? It's something I'm still thinking about twenty years later.

Robert Darnton, "Readers Respond to Rousseau: The Fabrication of Romantic Sensitivity" (1984). This essay appeared in Darnton's collection on French cultural history, The Great Cat Massacre. Drawing on a collection of letters between Jean Ranson, a French merchant book collector, and a Swiss publisher, Darnton unearthed Ranson's fascination with the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom Ranson called "L'ami Jean-Jacques" (my friend, Jean-Jacques) even though, as Darnton noted, he "had never met" Rousseau and could only know him through the printed word. This relationship was the set-up for an amazing analysis of what Darnton calls "Rousseauistic reading," a new way of understanding the world of a novel as an intimate representation of an author's emotional being. In some of the funniest passages, Darnton talked about Rousseau's alarm about the new type of readers he created; apparently Rousseau had to install a trap door in his home to escape the many admirers who sought him out for heart-to-heart chats and expressions of gratitude after reading books like La Nouvelle Heloise. In the described shift toward a Romantic "sharing of selfhood," I started to see patterns that pre-modelled modern fans' relationships to media celebrities.

Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (1984). Susan Stewart's On Longing was an extraordinary work of cultural theory, rooted in literary studies but also ranging outward to include giant myths, doll houses, and book collectors. For me, it was one of the first theoretical works I had encountered about the sometimes intense relationships that people develop with objects and performances. No one I knew was writing about that particular kind of desire in 1984, and her arguments about the ways in which we make sense of the world around us by sorting our experiences and manipulating time and space through narrative gave me a stronger sense of the existential gravity behind reading: it was about much more than mere entertainment or cultural refinement. Stewart's final essay on collecting directly addressed what I later recognized as a primary fan practice. She showed how collectors variously layer objects with complex narratives of authenticity, nostalgia, and the self. The book's post-structuralist language and Lacanian references were, at first, a bit impenetrable for me, but Stewart, a poet, still had a knack for thought-provoking declarations: "The printed text is cinematic before the invention of cinema." "Although reading may give form to time, it does not count in time; it leaves no trace; its product is invisible." "The souvenir must be removed from its context in order to serve as a trace of it, but it must also be restored through narrative and/or reverie." I still go back to it.

Janice Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (1984). In one of my first jobs (1985-86 or so), I worked at Barnes & Noble, where I was in charge of, among other things, shelving the new series arrivals in the romance section and shipping older, unsold editions back to the publishers. I distinctly remember the customers who came into the store regularly to buy romance books and who seemed to have a deep knowledge of the nuances between Harlequin lines and other competing series. I wanted to talk to these customers more about their obvious passion for books and reading, but it was too awkward for me. Radway did. Published in 1984, Radway's pioneering research featured interviews with a group of women romance readers. Like Stewart's work, Radway was, at one level, rescuing a denigrated form of popular culture by showing the ways in which it facilitated meaning-making in everyday life; as a feminist, her goal was to find out how such books helped women to negotiate patriarchal society. There were problems with the research, at least in terms of ethnographic practice (Radway was ultimately unwilling to take the women's articulation of their own lives at face value, asserting their patriarchal oppression and then wrestling with how to interpret romance reading in light of that), but her work nevertheless showed me how fieldwork--typical for anthropology abroad rather than at home--might serve as a legitimate method in the investigation of popular culture fandom. I taught this book for many years in a seminar on audience studies, and it remains influential.

Cathy N. Davidson, "The Life and Times of Charlotte Temple" (1989). This essay, which appeared in a collection edited by Davidson called Reading in America. I could talk about Davidson's equally compelling Revolution and the Word (1984), which more broadly addressed the power of novel-reading in the new republic, but this essay was one of the first that I had encountered that analyzed, head-on, the ways in which a single novel might change the lives of ordinary readers. The novel was Susanna Rowson's Charlotte Temple, a cautionary tale of a young woman's fall from virtue, and one of early America's bestsellers. Davidson pointed out that readers developed such intensely emotional reactions to the story and the character of Charlotte that they believed that the sensational story was true. Someone even placed a tombstone for Charlotte in the churchyard of New York City's Trinity Church, signifying readers' blurring of the lines between fiction and reality, and by the 1850s, weeping readers (men and women, working and middle-class) regularly made pilgrimages to the churchyard to pay their respects. Besides suggesting the ways in which readers worked to sustain the world of a narrative outside of their encounters with that narrative (much as music or theater fans stay in "audience" mode long after performances are over), the notion of pilgrimage really resonated with me. I knew fans for Springsteen who did the same thing as Charlotte Temple readers, imbuing real places with new layers of meaning known only to them.

No comments:

Post a Comment