The following comments are reflections upon a really intense and delightful weekend spent at Phoenix Rising, a Harry Potter Conference held in New Orleans. Thanks to my hosts and to all of the other fans I met at the conference. I am sure that I will be having further reflections on what I learned this weekend in future posts.
Harry Potter in the Mainstream
Shortly after I arrived in New Orleans, I was interviewed on camera by a producer for Dateline. Among the many questions he asked me was whether we would ever see something like the Harry Potter phenomenon again in our lifetime. The question was relatively banal but for some reason, it caught me off guard, as I realized that according to many theories, we shouldn’t be seeing anything like the Harry Potter phenomenon now. Harry Potter is a massive mass market success at a time when all of our conversations are focusing on the fragmentation of the media marketplace and the nichification of media production. There has been so much talk about the loss of common culture, about the ways that we are all moving towards specialized media, about the end of event based consumption, and so forth. Yet very little of it has reflected on the ways that Harry Potter has bucked all of these trends.
I got into my taxi from the airport and had the usual conversation you have with a taxi driver in a convention city. He asked where I came from and why I was in town — as if following a script — and then asked me what kind of conference I was attending. But when I told him I was going to a Harry Potter conference, his eyes brightened up, his voice grew more intense, and he told me how very very much he was waiting for the final novel to come out this summer. I checked into the hotel and went across the street for some late lunch and played out more or less the same conversation with the waitress. When she saw I had a conference program, she brought several of her friends around — including some from the kitchen — who wanted to flip through the program, who wanted to sneak across the street and attend a session or two, who wondered aloud who I thought might be killed in the final installment and whether or not Snape was an evil person. Some of them had stories of the lengths they had gone to celebrate their affection for and affiliation with these books. These folks weren’t simply the readers of a best-selling book series; they had all of the passion and at least some of the expertise one associates with the most hardcore fans of any other media property, only they had no direct affiliation with any kind of fan culture or community.
I tried explaining this to the television producer, worried that the final documentary, when it airs later this summer, will fall prey to the usual stereotypes of crazed and obsessive fans, totally outside of the cultural mainstream. But statistically speaking, the people who are not fans of Harry Potter are outside of the mainstream. According to Wikipedia, the six books have so far sold 377 Million copies and been translated into more than 63 different languages. Harry Potter will be widely recognized by people all over the world, including many who have not read the books but watched the movies or simply read a newspaper over the past decade.
A fair number of those Muggles are very aware that the new novel is coming out in a matter of weeks and many of them will race out to the stores or put in an advanced order so that they will be sure to get a copy the moment it becomes available. More than 500,000 pre-orders had been placed at last count and those numbers are continuing to grow everyday. One can’t help recall the stories of the mobs that swamped the docks awaiting the latest shipment of Dickens serials from London. And a fair number of them also know that the new film is coming out this summer and plan to wait in long lines to see it on opening day. Each of the films claims a place on the list of the top 20 money-earners of all time. All of this is part of the Harry Potter phenomenon which suggests the mainstream nature of its success. The conference brought together some of the people responsible for that mass market success including Electronic Arts’ Danny Bilson who has helped to supervise the Harry Potter games.
Harry Potter as Niche Media
But in many other ways, the success of Harry Potter demonstrates the power of niche media. Start from the fact that this is a children’s book, after all, and a fantasy, two genres which historically have attracted only niche readerships. Scholastic surely wouldn’t have predicted this level of popular interest when it chose to publish the original novel. By traditional industry talk, much of Harry Potter‘s success came from so-called “surplus consumers” — that is, consumers who fall outside of its target demographic. Traditionally, much of fan culture involves these kinds of surplus consumers — female fans of male-targeted action adventure series, adult consumers of children’s media, western consumers of Japanese popular culture, and so forth. Indeed, it is this attraction to works that are in some ways mismatched to our needs that encourages fans to rework and rewrite them.
At the same time, passion for the Harry Potter books has emerged as a generational marker, with many of those who attending the conference first becoming active within fan culture in their early teens. Some older fans have criticized my discussion of Harry Potter fandom in Convergence Culture for not giving them their due. I certainly would never imply that Harry Potter only attracts young fans — indeed, much of the early coverage of the fan culture was fascinated by the fact that so many adults were becoming a fan of a children’s franchise — but I also think that the young age of so many of the participants in this global fan culture is a striking feature. I am used to going to fan cons where my wife and I are well within the average age bracket and here, the participants were much closer to my son’s age.
Fan culture historically prides itself as being outside the mainstream. Catherine Tosenberger, a newly minted academic who specializes in the study of children’s literature and whose dissertation dealt with erotic writing set in the Harry Potter realm, deployed the term, “unpublishable” in her discussion of fan fiction this weekend. She wanted to argue that much of fan fiction was “unpublishable” not in the negative sense that it is not worthy of being published but in the affirmative sense that it breaks the rules that set limits on what kinds of stories can be told within a commercially produced text: it experiments with new themes, it pushes the relationships in new directions, it adopts new forms, it embraces its own aesthetic, and it addresses audiences not considered commercially viable. In that sense, fan fiction represents the ultimate niche product — one which emerges from a subculture, even if that subculture is now producing and circulating fan fiction on a scale which would have been unimaginable to those of us who first starting writing academic work on fan fiction almost two decades ago. The internet has increased the scale and expanded the distribution of fan produced content. Reading and writing fan fiction may not yet be a “mainstream” activity but it is starting to push the limits of our conception of what constitutes niche success. (By the way, one hallmark of this and other Harry Potter conventions is the healthy mixture of academic and fan experts, often on the same panel, and the eagerness with which fans soak up academic analysis of their culture and of the books.)
Suzanne Scott, a Ph.D. candidate from the Critical Studies program at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, shared her analysis of a decisively more niche practice — “wizard rock” — which she read in relation to earlier Do-It-Yourself music movements and to subcultural theories more generally. Wizard Rock is a form of music which takes its themes and inspiration from J.K. Rowling’s novels; it may take many different forms, musically, including hard rock, new wave and punk, folk, and Emo. Much of it has a satirical edge but one born of a deep affection for the material.
As Scott notes, we might see wizard rock as a fandom specific outgrowth of the much older practice of filk music within the science fiction and media fan world. Filk is a word that emerged from a typo in a fan convention program that turned “folk music” into “filk music,” but it caught the fancy of many fans and took on a life of its own. Filk defined itself initially as folk music about the future (as compared to traditional folk which is often about the past) and later as folk music about mass culture content more generally.
When I wrote about Filk in Textual Poachers, I was describing a form of music which was most often performed live and was largely shaped by communal sing-alongs. In the 1980s, though, we were starting to see the emergence of some filk performers and composers who were developing a kind of celebrity within fan culture: there were small scale companies that produced and distributed their taps, primarily in con dealer’s rooms or via the mails. Not surprisingly, these companies made the transition from tape to cd, once it became possible to produce and distribute such recordings at relatively low costs. I was pleased to see some of these filk songs show up on Napster and the other torrents and more recently, some of the classic filk songs started to appear at the Apple iMusic store so that fans of filk could download them onto their iPods. Wizard rock artists have been quick to realize the values of MySpace as a distribution channels, deploying social networks to spread their reputations to more and more of the Harry Potter fans worldwide. Some in the audience suggested that there were now more than 300 Wizard Rock groups with their own MySpace pages.
A number of the leading Wizard Rock bands — Draco and the Malfoys, The Parselmouths, The Remus Lupins, and the Whomping Willows — performed at a special Friday night concert in a classic Storyville nightclub along Bourbon Street. Not all of them were “good” by traditional industry standards — they might approach the level of “unrecordable” to build on Tosenberger’s apt concept — but a sizable segment of the audience had memorized their song lyrics and were singing along and they were doing a healthy trade in t-shirts and cds.
By almost any definition, wizard rock is a niche media form, though as Scott suggested, it is not clear whether we want to read it as a resistant subculture in any traditional sense of the word. Their tendency to personify the “evil” characters from the books and to tell the story from their perspectives suggests a play with moral inversion which has long been part of fan culture and songs with titles like “Voldemort Can’t Stop the Rock” build on the ways rock music has long cast itself as an oppositional practice. Many of the groups do adopt an anti-censorship stance which grows out of the long struggles to defend the books themselves whose place in the classroom and in libraries have consistently been challenged by cultural conservatives, as I document in Convergence Culture.
Ships that Pass in the Night
In another sense, Harry Potter fandom is composed of a series of niche audiences, each interpreting the books on their own terms. We see this for example in the intense battles which have sometimes surrounded the various “ships” (relationships) in the novels. Fans may often draw sharp battle lines between those who believe Harry should end up with Ginny or with Hermione, not to mention those who would root for Draco or Snape or … Fan fiction websites may be divided according to the preferred relationships, though there are some general sites such as FictionAlley which runs fic of all denominations. J.K. Rowling herself stepped into the fray around the release of the last book when she suggested in an interview with The Leaky Cauldron, a leading Harry Potter news-site, that Harry and Ginny had been the “obvious” pairing from the start and many hurt fans of Harry/Hermione fiction wrote her angry letters. Fans talk about the OTP (One True Pairing), though many fans remain open to a good story told about any possible relationship in the books. There are subgenres of fan fiction, especially those which surround Harry Potter erotica, which may also sharply divide the fandom into smaller and smaller niche publics. (The less said about some of those feuds here, the better.)
In the past, it would not be hard to imagine each of these fan cultures taking shape and continuing to operate with little or no awareness of each other’s existence — a series of localized reading practices or small interpretive communities. But the world of the internet has pushed them into contact with each other and the organizers of conferences like this one have to think carefully about how to create a harmonious balance between fans with very different aesthetic and moral sensibilities. One of the most heavily attended events of the weekend was a debate about the moral character of Snape which pit fans with fundamentally different theological commitments against each other. As I spoke to some fans afterwards, they had converted to the other side based on what they saw as sound and unassailable arguments.
On the other hand, we could also argue that it was the web that made some of the smaller niches within Harry Potter fandom possible in the first place — fans of less likely pairings or more obscure subgenres of fan fiction would not have found each other without access to the kinds of social networking tools available today and would not have sustained their work without access to LiveJournal and discussion forums. During my comments on the plenary panel, I reminded the audience of the state of fan culture in the 1980s when discussions of television shows took place at cons or through letterzines (zines which assembled letters of comments and distributed them every three or four months). We were once excited to read what a few other people thought of that television show we watched months before. Now, the web allows instant response and prolonged interactions with fans scattered around the world. Ideas emerge, get elaborated upon, get debated, even become widely accepted in a matter of days. And the rhythm of the Harry Potter books’ publication allows new orthodoxies to set in and be overturned many times while everyone is waiting for the next book in the series to appear.
Harry Potter and the Media Revolution
Harry Potter fans have been early adopters and adapters of new media technology in their efforts to connect with each other. It was announced at the conference that one of the long standing Harry Potter fan groups was launching its own island on Second Life where fans could gather to discuss or enact aspects of the books. Several different groups were producing podcasts at this event. I was, for example, asked to perform the part of Dumbledore in Spellcast’s radio theater production of The Three Trials of Severus Snape which was being recorded at the convention. These podcasters have close relations with Warner Brothers and Scholastic and some of them are sponsored by Borders, the book chain which has made a major investment in Harry Potter fan culture. Borders also sponsored the field Quidditch competition, another suggestion that Harry Potter straddles between mass and niche media. Indeed, fans cite Rowling’s implicit and sometimes explicit support for her fan culture as one of the factors that has paved the way for the enormous explosion of grassroots creativity the series has inspired. This is a case of the perfect storm where an engaging and immersive text and a welcoming author has met a new generation of fans eager to exploit the emerging new media platforms that have become so much a part of their lives.
And there were signs to be seen that these fans are starting to recognize their potential power as political force. On my plenary panel, we spent some time discussing the Defense Against Dark Arts movement, a fan effort to stand up to Warner Brothers when they sent Cease and Desist orders to Harry Potter fan websites worldwide. As I explain in Convergence Culture, this may have been the first successful movement of fans to challenge the rather blanket copyright assertions of the major media producers and they were successful at getting the studio to stop and reassess its response to fan culture.
Indeed, when I speak to media executives today, they cite two examples of franchises which helped to alter their understanding of fan culture — Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. (It is striking, of course, that mainstream journalists tend to stress the Lord of the Rings story, which keeps alive the myth of the powerful Fan Boy, and not the Harry Potter story, which would require them to pay much more attention to Fan Girls as a cultural and political force.)
Around the edges of this con, there were signs that at least some fans wanted to move beyond this victory to embrace a larger target. I sat on a panel which helped to explain to fans the stakes in the current debates around net neutrality and the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act; I also attended several panels where fan/lawyers were proposing reforms to current copyright legislation which would provide greater protection for grassroots creative expression. A team of fan vidders were taking to the streets of New Orleans to do interviews and produce a documentary designed to raise awareness of what still needs to be done to help the city recover from Katrina. Everywhere you turned there were debates about sexual politics, with fans that had been reading and writing slash (homoerotic fan fiction) finding themselves more and more involved in debates affecting the rights of sexual minorities.
Many fans just wanted to have a good time this weekend but others were arguing that they should exploit their skills as media producers and distributors and take advantage of their massive numbers to make a difference in society. One could argue that this vision of fandom as a political movement might reflect the ideological construction of the books themselves, which encourage us to stand up for what we believe in, to question authority, and to take strength in our own communities. It would be interesting, indeed, if the Harry Potter books turned out to have shaped the political beliefs of the next generation, much as they have shaped their cultural imaginations. I told the reporter that it was no accident that the success of the Harry Potter books has occurred primarily in a Post-9/11 world and that it has paralleled the success of Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life. Both books encourage us to see our lives in a larger context, to seek out and pursue a larger purpose than our own self interests.
So, can all of this happen again? Yes, but then it depends upon what level of the phenomenon we are talking about: the Harry Potter, which represents perhaps one of the last gasps of the old mass culture, or the Harry Potter, which represents the emergence of new forms of niche culture.