Sunday, November 13, 2005


Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--

Richard Nokes in Unlocked Word Hoard proposes that scholarship and fandom are just two ends of one spectrum of literary appreciation. His formula for scholarship when put into terms of fan appreciation goes like so:

1. -- Wow, that was cool.
2. -- Gee, I wonder what made it so cool?
3. -- Hmm, now that I think about it, I know what made it cool.
4. -- But how does that coolness work?
5. -- Ah, some guy has a theory for why things are cool. When I apply it here, you can REALLY see how cool it is.
6. -- Maybe I should write this down so other people can see how cool this is and enjoy it more.

His clever breakdown of the critical appreciation process highlights, for me, the difference between what he calls "serious study" and "serious professional study".

I see a big divergence between step 3 and step 4. When I (a non-professional) take the time to analyze my appreciation of (say) Tolkien, I focus on the "now that I think about it" part. That is, I try to apply my decades-old undergraduate education:

I go back and read the text closely for clues in the vocabulary, sentence structure, and prose style. I try to find interesting ("cool!") connections with other parts of the same text, other texts by the same author, and with other authors that gave me something of that same "cool!" feeling. If I'm getting ambitious, I'll go past reaching into my memory for all this, and do some reading. I might even read or re-read a critical essay by a professional that I have found to be understandable in past encounters, to see what he or she thinks. With Tolkien and a few other subjects, I can even proceed to step 6, and post my thoughts in a more or less amusing essay form on any of several internet discussion boards that I've discovered, where some folks may provide me with some feedback, appreciation, and criticism. It doesn't get more gratifying than that.

Is this "serious" study? You tell me. What I don't do, as I see it, is dig deeper into "how does that coolness work?" I usually feel, if I got as far as I've described above, that I've gotten as far as I'm going to get on how that coolness worked. Is it enough for me? Yes, in that I've had some intellectual exercise, I usually have some kind of new insight at the end that I didn't have before, and I can reflect with satisfaction once more on the lifelong value of a liberal arts education. Then I have to get back to my life, my family, my day job, and my need for sleep.

The professional, on the other hand, evidently doesn't stop with "now that I think about it". The impressive conclusion "I know what made it cool" is not nearly enough. He proceeds to step 4: he begins to investigate his own recent investigation. Looking around for, finding, and applying "some guy's theory" allows him to, as Nokes puts it, REALLY see how cool it is. And then, as he says, one proceeds to step 6 "in an organized setting", i.e., one writes it down in the approved and formal manner that is appropriate for professional publication. In the end, it still doesn't get more gratifying than that, I'd guess.

Nokes and Drout have both fairly recently blogged on the value of "theory" in conducting literary research, while debating to what degree theory separates or even alienates the "lay" community from the academic literati. This seems another example of the same phenomenon. It's exactly Nokes' inclusion of theory in his schema that seems to separate "scholarship" from "fan appreciation".

Do I wish I could do the theory part? Not really -- it isn't so much that it seems "hard" (though it does: "the text transgresses the generic norms to such a degree as to form a new genre" has got to be a joke. Right, Prof. Nokes? Right??) as that it requires far more abstract study and work than I will ever have time for in my life today; and I harbor a nagging doubt that the reward would be worth the effort in terms of just how cool I find the literature that I enjoy (or my other subjects of study, by the way, like history or science) to be. But there: how will I ever know?

[Oh, and by the way. At the risk of sounding like a oversensitive geek, I fear that "Fanboy" is not really being used correctly by our esteemed academic bloggers as they delicately wade into the TORn-y thickets of Tolkien fandom. Fangirls, as I understand the term, are kind of the Beatlemaniacs of the Lord of the Rings movie fan base. Elijah Wood, Orlando Bloom, Viggo Mortensen, and Sean Bean live in fear of them, and I risk a certain amount of opprobrium by omitting here some of the other variously adored male members of the cast. Thus Fanboys, if there is such a thing, presumably swoon at the thought of meeting, write poetry to, post luscious pictures of, and generally obsess about Miranda Otto, Liv Tyler, and possibly Cate Blanchett (there are also of course those Fanboys who are as one with their female compatriots in lusting after Elijah, et. al.)
Expressed with all the good will in the world, comments like Nokes' "So, fear not, One Ringers ... we're all Fanboys here" and Drout's "I am, obviously, a huge fanboy" tend to give me the nervous giggles. Both gentlemen are obviously, and wonderfully, simply, like so many others of us, just Fans.]

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