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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

What Happens When a Fandom Ends?

[Artwork by Ninny Treetrops, probably my favorite of all the thousands of HP fan artists out there]

So, it appears the cat is out of the bag insofar as "Pottermore", the website that J.K. Rowling has teased us with for the past week or so, and has promised to announce tomorrow. An online wizarding treasure hunt? Perhaps encyclopedia entries, an interactive Harry Potter game, selected readings by Stephen Fry, more? I'm game--I'll definitely check it out. But nothing, not even the new book that one supposed fan (but not a terribly informed one, as fans like myself explained to him a great length in the comments) proposed for Rowling to pursue in Slate, is enough to shake me out of a mood, when it comes to Harry Potter, that wavers between giddy nostalgia and outright melancholy. (Besides, I'd much rather hear more about Dean Thomas than Teddy Lupin.) The fact is, in less than a month's time, a strange obsessive community I've found myself enjoying and participating in for the past four years will, if not come to an end, then at least be permanently changed.

I never expected to become a Potterholic. Though I was aware of the books, and Melissa was reading them, from the beginning, it took the fascination of my oldest daughter, years later in the summer of 2004, and beyond, to turn me into a fan. And then Half-Blood Prince made me a little crazy, and the rush of predictions in the lead-up to Deathly Hallows made me even more so. But still, I wasn't on the Harry Potter websites and boards; I wasn't reading or writing fan fiction, I wasn't dressing up--it was a delightfully obsessive pastime, but it didn't have any roots in my interior life. But then came the finale, in July of 2007, four years ago...and somehow, the thrill, joy, frustration, and exhaustion of that moment--of reading the final chapter, of seeing it all finished and whole, with everything Rowling gave us and all she failed (or, as I have since argued, perhaps unconsciously chose!) not to tell--all combined. Rowling is by no means a great author--but she was at least good enough create a world, a funny and strange and violent and yet almost innocently moral world, inhabited by characters that were worth loving and hating and hoping for. And it was done; Harry, Ron, and Hermione we're...no more. That's hard to grasp, as more than a few fellow obsessives had foreseen. No doubt there were many millions of readers--the great majority, I'm sure--who closed the last book with satisfaction (or disappointment) and went on with their lives. But not me--not quite. And that, my eight faithful readers, is what began a four-year (so far) long sojourn through my first true fandom.

Wait: aren't I a Star Trek fan? Of course--a serious one! I had whole episodes of the original series all but memorized when I was in junior high. But I never got into the Trekkie world; I'm not sure I've ever even read a single Star Trek novel all the way through. (My brother is a different case.) How about Tolkien? Didn't I read LOTR repeatedly, incorporate much of it into Dungeons and Dragons games? Absolutely. But still, while I'm happy to browse through the History of Middle Earth and debate fiercely whether balrogs had wings (of course they did, you idiot!), I never really saw myself, well, in all those arguments. But when it comes to arguing out Rowling's world and reading HP fan fiction...well, I was sunk. And, in sinking into that, I found myself surrounded by millions of others that had been delightfully engaging in HP fandom since the first book came out, and I had a lot of catching up to do.

Watching the movies was, of course, an essential part of keeping alive the whimsy, the delight, the faux-seriousness of being one of hundreds of thousands who loved and, in a weird way, "believed in" the details of this fantastic world--but so was thinking about the art, the ideas, the stories, the icons, the in-jokes that existed almost solely in an online world. Old-time geeks might snort derisively at the gushing claims made by many fans, the claim that there has "never been a fandom" like Harry Potter--they could tell us stories of Star Wars flik conventions at crummy motels, of thousands of purple-smudged pages of mimeographed Star Trek stories. Since what we're all talking about here is something that was mostly--insofar as the mainstream media and corporate powers were concerned at any rate--marginal and invisible for decades, I'm not sure how anyone could accurate measure the size of fandoms. And for that matter, just what fandoms there are. How big to they have to be to count? When did Led Zeppelin-listening hippies who fell into Tolkien's world in the 60s and 70s, or aspiring tech geeks who found their own mythology in Star Trek in the 70s and 80s, first realize they were a subculture of their own? Perhaps that's the only real difference with Harry Potter--thanks to the advent of the internet, potentially everyone playing around with Rowling's creation could always follow, and engage with, and most importantly be known (by each other, as well as by advertisers) to be being engaged with, everyone else, from day one until...well, until everyone stops, I guess.

It's been a weird, wonderful, often seriously time-wasting four years. "Time-wasting": do I believe that? Sort of; there have definitely been days when turning the world of Harry Potter over and over in my mind has got in the way of me getting essential work done. But then again, if I hadn't taken it as seriously as I have, then I wouldn't have the relationship I have with my daughters--with Megan, who grew up into the world of imagination through Rowling's books, and with Caitlyn, who partook of that world through following the same path at her own pace, and now with Alison, who is turning into every bit the fan that Megan ever was. (And someday, my last daughter, Kristen, as well? Perhaps. Who knows?) I guess I'm not embarrassed by being a Potterholic at all--dissatisfied at some of my time choices, and maybe even with some less than admirable habits I've picked up along the way...but do I wish I hadn't had geeked out on the story at all? No, not in the least.

Anyway, we've got our tickets and our Gryffindor scarves for the midnight showing, three weeks from tomorrow. Who knows what it'll happen after that? Maybe the whole thing--for me personally, or for everyone else--will just wind down. Or maybe the ideas and enchantment and silliness and soulful beauty of the stories will just, one way or another, keep marching on, carrying all us obsessives, happily, along with them.

Update, 6/23,2011, 8:01am, CST: here's the Pottermore announcement from Rowling. An interactive--perhaps Wiki?--encyclopedia/backstory archive? Hopefully, one that in time will allow for additional "licensed" fan writings as well? I'll be signing up, that's for sure:


Jacob T. Levy said...

" Perhaps that's the only real difference with Harry Potter--thanks to the advent of the internet, potentially everyone playing around with Rowling's creation could always follow, and engage with, and most importantly be known (by each other, as well as by advertisers) to be being engaged with, everyone else, the day one until...well, until everyone stops, I guess."

Well, it's not like Trek (or Star Wars or LOTR) fandom disappeared in the 70s. When usenet finally got created, those fandoms were there waiting for it, and colonized it fast.

But I think X-Files was the first fandom that was online since-birth. It was assuredly much smaller then Potter fandom, but otherwise this part of your description fits X-Philes to a T. I was never really one of them-- as you say about your other pre-HP fandoms, it wasn't part of my interior life. But I knew people for whom it was-- and, boy howdy, it was serious business. (And, for an SF fandom of its time, shockingly gender-balanced.)

Russell Arben Fox said...

Jacob, you're right of course: once the internet emerged as a resource in the early 1990s, Trek and LOTR and other fandoms were all over it--and they're still all over it, for sure. But you've got to admit that, as subcultures, those fandoms developed their own mores, their own in-jokes, their own boundaries, primarily before online permeability was available. And that has to have some consequence for the nature of the fandom itself.

Good point about X-Files fandom; that one never occurred to me, as I never got into the show or any of its ancillary materials. I'm sure you're right about it's online evolution, though--as well its surprisingly egalitarian character. (The same can be said for HP fandom--in fact, it's probably that HP fandom is predominantly female. Which makes me wonder about LOTR fandom--is there a fantasy/sci-fi divide here? Or are there other reasons why some fandoms have been historically strong male domains, and other fandoms otherwise?)