I must apologize for not posting very much recently. It's been a demanding couple of months at work, and finding time to blog has been a challenge. I'm hoping to revive things; as a start, I'd like to highlight some recent activity and correspondence.
Robert Burke Warren wrote to share a piece he had written on R.E.M. for The Rumpus. I had previously noted Warren's engaging reflections on his fandom for Paul McCartney; this piece is equally compelling, weaving reminiscences about R.E.M. with a moving account of personal friendship and loss. You don't have to like or dislike R.E.M. to appreciate his articulation of the profound associations and meanings that popular music can provide us in our daily lives. From now on, when people come up to me and say, with a conspiratorial wink, "So you teach popular music at the college level? What do you talk about for a whole semester?", I'm directing them here.
Scott Thompson, a former student and now guitarist/banjoist with the band Tallahassee, wrote to share a feature on booing at Freakonomics.com. It reminded me that the expression of audience displeasure is as important as audience pleasure in understanding fandom and enthusiasm. The podcast notes that booing is more appropriate in some contexts (sports) than others (Broadway), but also that the sovereignty of audience members to express themselves itself has been significantly reduced since the 19th century (Richard Butsch's work gets a nod, here). I think a deeper discussion about why such expression changed historically would have helped provide some stronger conclusions. And it also raises all kinds of questions about the sound of booing (why "boo" not "bah" or "buh"?) and the physicality of that action--versus clapping, for instance. In general, why do audiences primarily use the sonic capabilities of their bodies to send messages to performers onstage?
Ralph Rosen, at University of Pennsylvania, wrote to ask about my thoughts on Platonic conceptions of fans (or "lovers of sights and lovers of sounds"). His note made me realize the extent to which my own American studies background might be isolating me from wider global and historical conversations about fandom. In particular, I've been enjoying an essay Rosen wrote for Playing Around Aristophanes: Essays in Celebration of the Completion of the Edition of the Comedies of Aristophanes by Alan Sommerstein, ed. by Lynn Kozak and John Rich (Aris & Philips, 2006: 27-47), titled "Aristophanes, Fandom, and the Classicizing of Greek Tragedy." He explores how Greek tragic poets acquired a literary legacy in a time when performances were ephemeral and not made into texts that could establish a measurable "readership." His answer is that devoted audiences, post-performance, played a significant part in creating a poet's legacy:
I would suggest that the key players in the classicizing process are what, for lack of more technical term, I would call 'fans', although other synonyms would work just as well: devotees, cognoscenti, etc. Before a performative work is fixed and circulated as a text, it will amass a coterie of devotees for whom, for whatever reasons (and there may be many), the works have special resonance. As I noted above, however, for a work to endure, it requires some measure of iterability, even if this means simply some mechanism by which the memory of the event and its author are kept alive. Fans provide this service well in advance of any formal means of mechanical reproduction, for they will take the work seriously enough to continue discussing it among themselves and to proselytize among skeptics about the virtues of their chosen heroes. (32)Finally, I noticed that Jennifer L. Brady has an essay about enthusiastic readers of Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World over at Commonplace. An engaging exploration of fan letters to Warner in the early 19th century, Brady shows how "Warner's fan letters can tell us why readers like (and unlike) Alice's Admirer devoured The Wide, Wide World, why they formed deep emotional bonds with characters whom they knew to be fictional, and why they chose to bare their souls in letters to a writer whom they would never meet. They can tell us why particular readers felt so strongly about this novel and why, for some, their attachment to it endured over decades. These letters can give us fresh perspective, then, on sentimental novels, ordinary readers, and fandom in the nineteenth century—and they do so by recording the varied ways that some ordinary readers and a sentimental author were brought together by loving The Wide, Wide World." Scholarship that draws on historical fan letters is growing in a number of fields; I would add Brady's work, here, with that of Barbara Ryan (see Reading Acts, as well as her new project on Ben-Hur), Courtney Bates (see her article on Willa Cather fans in Transformative Works), Emily Satterwhite (Dear Appalachia: Readers, Identity, and Popular Fiction Since 1878, which is coming out any day now), as well as Marsha Orgeron's work on fans of movie stars like Clara Bow (Hollywood Ambitions).
That's it for me this weekend. Back soon.