one of my periodic existential crises

This afternoon, a colleague who edits a theological journal came to my office and invited me to contribute an article to an upcoming issue on theology and literature. He assured me that I wouldn’t need to write an entirely new piece but could update something I wrote, say, during my doctoral studies. Knowing my love for Harry Potter, he said that a piece on the series would be enthusiastically welcomed. I said I’d be happy to contribute, and the conversation left me feeling honored and excited.

Now, a few hours later, I’m feeling more worried than anything else, for two main reasons. One has to do with the fact that I produced the bulk of my academic writing before cloud storage existed, or at least before I was using it regularly. I have a few PhD. papers in my Dropbox, as well as my dissertation (which–shameless plug–you can read on ProQuest), but the only academic work I still have from my master’s and bachelor’s programs are my respective theses, which are also accessible through library databases. One might correctly argue that most of what I wrote during those first two degree programs is not worth resurrecting, but I can think of a few papers from those years that, with some revision, would fit well with the theme of the journal issue–such as the first paper I ever presented at a conference (in 2008, during my master’s program), which connected Dorothy Sayers’ analogy of the Trinity with the author-character relationship in the film Stranger Than Fiction. This paper, which actually made a lot of sense, exists now only as a line on my CV.

My other, bigger concern has to do with the imposter syndrome I regularly experience, which leads me to believe that I’ve lost the ability to write. I realize the irony of expressing this fear in a blog post, but I worry specifically that I’ve lost the ability to write academically. A few weeks ago, while organizing the files in my Dropbox, I made a folder called “things I’ve written,” and I was pleasantly surprised by the number of written and oral contributions I’ve been able to make in the almost five years since I finished my doctorate–a short reflective essay published in Collegial Exchange (a publication of the professional organization for women educators, Delta Kappa Gamma), two lectures given at meetings of the local creative writing group I belonged to in Virginia, a short story written for my current employer’s annual magazine. I’m proud of these, but not one of them was scholarly in nature. I did present at an academic conference last year, but even that paper was a humor-laced analysis of the character of Loki in the Marvel movies, skimpy on sources and not rigorous enough for publication in a journal.

So I’m nervous. I haven’t written anything truly scholarly since my dissertation. Perhaps I can comb through said dissertation for segments that I might be able to expand into a journal article, but the problem is that there’s no obvious connection to theology or faith in my dissertation. There’s kind of a sideways connection, which I mention in the introduction, but I’m not sure if it would make sense as an article outside the context of the full study.

Underneath this nervousness, though, I still have to admit I’m a little bit excited. This will give me an excuse to go back and read at least parts of my dissertation and see if I still think they’re good. I have a feeling that there’s something there that might work for this assignment. The ideas are vague and formless, but watching an idea take shape was always my favorite part of writing for school. I’m ready to get started.

I am not fast.

A brief explanation to the people I’ve been road-running with (that is, in the wake of) recently.

My running style can best be understood if you keep in mind that I am basically a hobbit.  I’m about 5’2″ and (this is a nice and fairly accurate way of putting it) solidly built.  I like to walk barefoot and can be quiet and light on my feet, but never graceful like an elf.  I enjoy and am quite good at hiking long distances, like to the Old Forest on the borders of the Shire.  I can carry my dearest (emaciated) friend up the side of Mount Doom, no problem.  But if you expect me to be fast, there we encounter a problem, unless you intend to give me a piggyback ride as Boromir did for Merry and Pippin.

Speed is not my skill.  Endurance is.  I’m well aware that endurance is not glamorous.  It is hard to depict in literature or film, and boring to read or watch.  For me, though, it’s something to be quietly proud of.  I take pride in the fact that during the Virginia Ten-Miler, I keep running steadily up Farm Basket Hill when most of the runners around me, some of them generally faster than I, are slowing down to walk.

Apparently I also have endurance in other areas of my life.  My chiropractor says I have a high pain tolerance, which is kind of an ugly cousin to endurance.  The first time I had a phone conversation with my dissertation chair, whom I’d never met in person, he said he thought I had grit, another close relative of endurance.  I’d like to believe it was the steely note of determination in my voice, but I think he was probably just bluffing.  Still, he must have been right, because I finished my dissertation (relatively quickly, I think, considering some of the logistical difficulties I encountered), and anyone who completes a doctoral dissertation must have grit.

I composed this post in my head during a recent run when I was feeling really bad about the fact that the second-slowest runner was so far ahead I couldn’t even see him.  I’ve framed it as an explanation to my fellow runners, but I think it’s actually just validation for me.  And I’m sharing it on my blog because there may be some other hobbits out there who need to look at their boring endurance trait from a new perspective.  Keep trudging, my friends.

world’s quickest interview, with Penelope Clearwater

Anonymous Interviewer: So, Penelope, are you ever going to post on your blog again?

Penelope Clearwater: Yes.

AI: Ok, good.  Like, when you watch another good movie, or…?

PC: When I finish my dissertation.

AI: Oh!  And how much of that do you still need to write?

PC: In the body proper, about 17 pages.

AI: Cool!  I’ll let you get back to that.

Penelope Clearwater will return in An Epic Celebration.


The Author Who Loved

The title of this post is a pun on “The Author Who Lived,” the title of the doctoral dissertation I’m working right now, which in turn is a pun on Harry Potter’s famous nickname “The Boy Who Lived.”  (My dissertation is about Charles Dickens’s and J. K. Rowling’s unusual relationships with their audiences; you can read a piece of the proposal here.)  All I want to do right now is to share with you a quote I was delighted to come across in my Dickens research.  It was written late in Dickens’s career/life by the respected critic Charles Eliot Norton.  The first sentence could be interpreted as a snide back-handed compliment, but keep reading; it isn’t.  I know there are writers who would disagree with me, but I think Norton in this statement gives Dickens the greatest praise anyone could give a writer.  And perhaps the second-to-last sentence will remind you of someone else.

No one thinks first of Mr Dickens as a writer.  He is at once, through his books, a friend.  He belongs among the intimates of every pleasant-tempered and large-hearted person.  He is not so much the guest as the inmate of our homes.  He keeps holidays with us, he helps us to celebrate Christmas with heartier cheer, he shares at every New Year in our good wishes: for, indeed, it is not in his purely literary character that he has done most for us, it is as a man of the largest humanity, who has simply used literature as the means by which to bring himself into relation with his fellow-men, and to inspire them with something of his own sweetness, kindness, charity, and good-will.  He is the great magician of our time.  His wand is a book, but his power is in his own heart.  It is a rare piece of good fortune for us that we are the contemporaries of this benevolent genius.

Re: survey

Tonight I checked the results of my survey on Harry Potter canonicity, and I was surprised and delighted to see that I’d received 195 responses!  Thank you all so much for taking the survey and sharing it with others.  I am still collecting responses, so if you haven’t taken the survey yet, or you want to send it to someone else, there’s still time.  Here’s the link:

There’s one thing I want to check on.  I said in the instructions that survey respondents could indicate a tie between two or more items by typing the same number for each of the tied items.  I tried to make sure that Qualtrics (the survey platform) would allow a tie in this type of survey, but I’m still having some doubts about that.  If you had two tied items, or if you tried unsuccessfully to create a tie, would you let me know in a comment on this post?  You don’t have to tell me what the tied items were.

By the way, I do realize how badly I’m slacking off in my blogging.  I haven’t forgotten you, dear readers, and I intend to post something non-survey related soon (as in, during October).

I need your help: One-question survey

As part of my dissertation research, I am attempting to gauge Harry Potter fans’ perceptions of the relative canonicity of different sources of information about the universe of the story.  The term canon generally refers to an entire fan community’s collective understanding of what constitutes accepted information about the world of the shared text, but in a large and highly participatory fan community like the Harry Potter one, each person may have a different opinion about what sources are canonical and what makes them that way.  This survey is an attempt to find out how different fans rate the canonicity of several major sources of Harry Potter lore.  Please read the prompt carefully and answer the question thoughtfully.  Also, I’d like to get as large a sample as possible, so please send the survey link to other fans.

I want your sympathy.

I’m reading The Casual Vacancy, J. K. Rowling’s 2012 debut “adult” novel, with the intention of having read all of her published works before I really get started writing my dissertation.  (I’m going to wait another week or two to see if inter-library loan can get me The Cuckoo’s Calling before I give up and order it from Amazon.)  I had heard multiple versions of two different, but compatible, assessments of The Casual Vacancy: that it was “racy” (invariably that was the word used) and that it was depressing because the characters were hard to like.

I’ve just finished Part One and found both of these evaluations to be true.  But I’ve also found something I didn’t expect: The Casual Vacancy reminds me strongly of a George Eliot novel.  What tipped me off to the resemblance was the name “Fairbrother”–it’s the last name of the man who dies at the beginning of Rowling’s novel, setting the story in motion, and it’s awfully close to “Farebrother,” the surname of a character in Middlemarch.  But this is just one of many resemblances between The Casual Vacancy and the Eliot canon, especially Middlemarch; others include themes of small-town life (and the pettiness that often accompanies it), sharply accurate depictions of mismatched marriages, long descriptions of characters’ interior thoughts, discussions of the problems of urbanization, and a particular focus on characters moving up or down the English social class scale, which appears in Vacancy to be fascinatingly (and depressingly) little changed since the nineteenth century.

What I don’t see in The Casual Vacancy, at least not yet, is any attempt on the author’s part to help us identify with the characters, especially the ones we don’t like.  Eliot did this a lot, and she did it masterfully, though not very subtly, often using direct second-person commands (“Ask yourself whether you would. . .”), all in an effort to develop the quality of “sympathy” (a key term for Eliot) in her readers.  Sympathy here is not feeling sorry for someone, and it’s not a naive ignorance of anyone’s faults.  It’s the ability to put ourselves imaginatively into another character’s situation and come to the conclusion that we would probably be inclined to act in a very similar way.  The point here is not to make a moral judgment about what would be the right thing to do in the situation, although that would be a logical next step.  The point is to be honest about ourselves.  I think all good realist novelists want their readers to develop sympathy; they just aren’t all as deliberate about it as George Eliot.  I think J. K. Rowling wants that for her readers too; she just isn’t making it very easy in The Casual Vacancy.  But a hard-won sympathy is probably more lasting than the knee-jerk kind anyway.  I’ll reserve my final judgment until I finish the book.

Let me make two more quick points about sympathy in a shameless effort to drag Charles Dickens and Harry Potter into this post:

1. It often takes multiple readings of a book to develop sympathy for a particular character.  When I first read David Copperfield, I thought David’s “child-wife” Dora was an annoying little twit, but now that I’ve read it several times I can see that she is remarkably self-aware in her own way and that she has a better grasp of the flaw in their marriage than David, apparently the more analytic one, does.  You gotta watch out for those first-person narrators.  They think they know everything.  (KATNISS EVERDEEN)

2. One valid reason for writing fan fiction is to try to develop sympathy with an unlikable, “minor,” or even villainous character.  Possibly this may be why there’s a lot of Draco Malfoy fanfic.  Certainly, some of it is of the shallow sort (“He looked extremely sexy and vulnerable as he knelt there weeping onto his elegantly cut black suit”), but I would also imagine–I haven’t actually read any Draco fanfic–that there’s some good stuff that explores, for example, what growing up in Malfoy Manor as an only child with those parents would do to a kid psychologically.

I promise I didn’t intend to write a literary criticism post this week; my original intention was to post pictures of my cute decorations for the afternoon party I hosted yesterday.  But I forgot to take pictures, so this is what you get.  I hope you’ll give me some sympathy.

A bit of a work in progress

I thought I’d share an excerpt from my dissertation proposal, which I’m working on right now:
According to several of the scholars I am planning to cite in my dissertation, including Henry Jenkins, Lisa Lewis, and Jennifer Hayward, it has become acceptable for fans to write academically about the texts they love and the experience of being fans. I am relieved to hear it, because I am a fan of both of the authors this dissertation is about. But there was a time when I hesitated to produce scholarly work on the texts I read for enjoyment. When I was working on my master’s thesis, on eating and bodies in George Eliot’s novels, I said things like “Eliot is for work; Dickens is for fun.” I was afraid, I think, that in order to write academically about Dickens’s novels, I would have to adopt a drearily critical stance toward David Copperfield (my absolute favorite) and all the rest. I was afraid, in other words, that I would have to stop loving Dickens.
Something happened in 2009 that changed my perspective: I discovered Harry Potter. Not that I’d never heard of him before; I’d just considered him annoying and beneath my notice. The story of how I changed my mind is probably delightful only to me, so I won’t narrate it here. Suffice it to say that I arrived at the party very late; all of the books had been released by the time I started reading them, but at least I made it in time to see the last three movies come to theaters. I had finished reading the series by September 2009 and was already getting together with friends to make butterbeer (our version consisted of cream soda, butterscotch, and, yes, sticks of butter) that fall. Sometime around the end of the year, I received a call for papers for a casebook on Harry Potter. And the funny thing is that I never hesitated over whether writing an academic essay for the casebook would destroy my newfound love. Of course I wanted to write an essay about Harry Potter; I wanted to do everything about Harry Potter.
My academic interest and my fan interest in the series grew simultaneously. In summer 2010, I learned that my proposal for the casebook had been accepted, and I got Virginia license plates that said HAFBLOD (i.e., Half-Blood, as in the Half-Blood Prince). In the three years since then, the casebook has been published, and I have presented papers on Harry Potter at two academic conferences; in the same period of time, I have visited the theme park The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and accumulated a respectable collection of memorabilia (including three wands). As I write this proposal I am preparing for a trip to Portland with my mom, who introduced me to Harry, to attend LeakyCon, the largest and most respected Harry Potter fan convention. Certainly I hope to gather information relevant to my dissertation during this trip, but I’m also going for fun.
By early summer 2012, when I started thinking about my dissertation, I had let go of the division I had formerly set up between books read for work and books read for fun, but I was at a bit of a crossroads in my scholarly identity. I called myself a Victorianist, but I was at least as much a Harry Potter-ist. I don’t know what sparked the idea that I could be both, at least in my dissertation; it may have been a conversation with my dad, who was reading through Dickens’s novels for the first time, or it may have been the early buzz about Pottermore. Whatever the cause, I recognized a potentially fascinating link between author-reader interactions in the nineteenth century and those occurring today. And, just as important, I saw a way to revel in fandom for a couple of years while telling people I was doing it for a project.