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Thoughts on Fandom, Class, and Reading

So I spent last week at the Popular Culture Association's National Meeting, which is always basically like nerdy braingasms. I gave a paper on Pacific Rim, spoke on a roundtable about Tolkien and derivative works, and ran a panel and roundtable on vampire literature. I also sat in on papers on comics, audience reception, adapting Sherlock, and a bunch of other things, and had some really great conversations, and then on the plane started sort of writing the following in my head:

Okay, so one of the ways to look at book history is how production and readership ties in with class: Today we refer to this (rather obliquely) as highbrow (Shakespeare), middlebrow (Tolkien), and lowbrow (comics? WWE?) culture. Now, what sort of came up in conversation at lunch one day, as happens, was the discussion of fandom as middle class activity. We like to think of the internet as freely available, but let's face it, it requires a computer and a connection, and any fanworks require software for images and wordprocessing. They also require time. This can also be tied into the assumption that fanworks are all by (middle class) teenage girls, because who has more leisure time for fan creation and media consumption, etc. etc.

Then you backtrack to the days of zines etc. You could obtain fic by either sending through the mail through ads in magazines (somewhere I have a 70s Star Trek mag that has one of those ads in the back for zines, with that old "- /" coding to denote whether it was gen or slash material) or by attending cons and acquiring them in the dealer's rooms (note: I know cons today often have a discounted charge if you want to go to the dealer's room and not the whole con--anyone know how far back that goes, or was it always the case?). So it would have been possible to have gone to buy zines but not shell out for actor photos and whatnot; not sure how many would have done that, but it would have been *possible*, I think.

But then in terms of actual zine production, back to the 1930s, there would still have been costs for paper, mimeo equipment, etc. etc. One of the fun things in my private collection is a short pamphlet by Don Wollheim from around ~39-40 where he is arguing against the US going to war because of the effect that will have on fan/SF culture: paper prices will go up and so will the cost of the magazines AND the fan pubs. (There's a paper in that, sometime.)

So backtracking even more, I'm thinking of Wilkie Collins's essay on the "Unknown Public" that was thousands of women buying books and serials back in the 1800s; his argument, as I recall, was about how they were buying all this lowbrow dreck (of course) and that someone (he) should *really* be teaching them to read properly. (Another note, there's been this preoccupation with "reading properly" back to the 16th and 17th c., and that too is tied in with class and also gender lines. Basically, men worrying about what women were reading goes way the hell back.)

Richard Altick in The English Common Reader actually did a fair bit with crunching numbers on publications and readers and such. I'm not sure if I'm relieved or not that he got kicked off my prelims list cos now I want to go back and look at it, though of course I need to focus on the books I already have. Altick was fairly seminal in shifting the discipline of book history from "how books were produced" to "who was reading them."

Anyway, fan histories/criticism tend to be written to focus on ethnography ("lookit what these people are doing! who are they?"), sociology ("look! it's women! *why* are they doing it??), and only now (like, literally, less than ten years) into literary critique ("this fan novel does x, y, and z."). I'm thinking if you apply book history practices to fandom, how we'll reveal things at a new slant: Not *why* women read and write slash, say, but what fans are really doing with their cultural preoccupations and so forth.

This can also be tied into romance studies, in a way. (Also, at PCA, I kind of wish I cared more about romances because what panels and scholars I have dipped into always seem to be consistently deep and well thought out. This year I attended a panel on gay romances and there were a couple of papers that were just really great histories of the emergence of those genres and how they were coded back in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, and it was *fascinating.*) Janice Radway's Reading the Romance basically focuses on the issues of women readers and writers, the patriarchy, and the middlebrow. Since a lot of fanworks are romances and erotica, a lot of this criticism and scholarship also applies. For instance, she has an essay about the supposition that romances are primarily lowbrow reading, except, of course, in terms of consumption and leisure time, a lot of romance readers are also middle class women.

Anyways, these are just so preliminary thoughts. So.


( 2 comments — Add your .02 )
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 21st, 2014 06:17 pm (UTC)
*focuses on the good bit* Tee hee, I got compared to Tolkien! :D
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