And you thought Harry Potter was kids’ stuff ? Try telling that to the delegates who packed into a conference in Las Vegas last week discussing moral alignment and metanarrative in the works of JK Rowling. But one question: why were the mostly female delegates dressed up as witches and schoolgirls and talking feverishly about Potter porn?
The first lecture I go to is called ‘Muggles and Mental Health: Rites of Transformation and A Psychoanalytical Perspective on the Inner World of Harry Potter’. It’s nine o’clock in the morning. Outside the temperature is 106 degrees Fahrenheit. Inside, in a windowless conference room in the JW Marriott Hotel, Las Vegas, there are around 60 people, all with notebooks open, ready to begin.
In some ways, it could be any other academic conference: Dr Christopher Blazina, an associate professor of psychology at Tennessee State University, has a PowerPoint presentation prepared. The audience is studiously attentive. And a couple of people are typing directly into their laptops. It could be any other academic conference apart from the fact that there are at least three middle-aged women dressed as witches complete with hats, cloaks and wands. In front of me is a row of four twenty-something women in grey school skirts, knee-socks and black gowns. And, sitting next to me, assiduously writing notes with a feathered quill onto what looks like parchment, is a boyish-looking teenage girl with cropped brown hair, and, the tell-tale giveaway, a pair of little round glasses.
Lumos 2006 is not just another conference, it’s ‘a Harry Potter symposium’, and most of the audience aren’t academics at all, they’re common-or-garden fans, 1,200 of them in total, here for three days’ worth of talks, presentations and panels. Dr Blazina’s presentation is just one out of a possible six others being held in the same time slot, including ‘Not Just Good and Evil: Moral Alignment in Harry Potter’ and ‘Bloody Hell! Why Am I So Wild About Harry?’
His main thesis seems to be that Harry is growing up. Or as he puts it, ‘Hogwarts is a tangible liminal state where Harry learns to re-sort Bad Objects and decathect from them’.
The last time I paid attention, Harry Potter was a phenomenally successful series of children’s books. But this, I discover, is the kind of hop elessly naive viewpoint that causes my fellow Lumos attendees to gasp and shake their heads. Children are banned from the conference. Over-14s are grudgingly allowed only if they’re chaperoned at all times. I go to only one talk in which the speaker thinks of mentioning that it’s a book for children. And even as he says it, I see the audience losing interest.
This is Harry Potter for adults. A concept that I’d always thought of as one of those minority tastes like quantum physics for children. Or Star Trek for girls. In fact, it’s not such a bad comparison, because it transpires that Star Trek is to young men what Harry Potter is to middle-aged women. And young women, too, actually. It’s overwhelmingly female. Eighty-five per cent of delegates are women, with an almost even split between the 16 to 24s and the 25s and older.
The first two women I meet, in the queue for check-in, are Linda and Susan. They’re fairly typical, I come to realise, of a certain Lumos constituency. They’re both in their thirties and both teachers. They’re dressed in school uniform with matching gowns that they’ve run up themselves on their sewing machines, and they’re both slightly giddy with excitement.
‘So, you’re a fan of the books?’ asks Linda.
Well, not really, I say.
‘But you’ve read the books, right?’
Well … I say, some of them.
‘But you’ve seen the fi lms at least?’
A couple, I say.
‘Oh my gosh!’ says Linda. She’s genuinely shocked even though I may have rather overstated my familiarity with the work. I read The Philosopher’s Stone on the plane. And have spent the last seven years or so listening to my niece and nephew, aged nine and 12 respectively, endlessly recounting the plot, although ‘listening’ in this context might be another of my overstatements.
But, hell, I was an English student once so I’ve not-read Milton and not-read Spenser; not-reading Rowling in comparison is a walk in the park. Besides, I have put my niece, Bethan, on standby. If there’s any really tricky questions, I’ve arranged to text her dad.
This, however, is before I’ve had the chance to really study the programme. A Berkeley professor called Frederick Crews did a rather gentle lampoon of literary criticism back in the Sixties called Pooh Perplex, a collection of essays purporting to be written by various academics on the subject of Winnie the Pooh. Then a few years ago he wrote a sequel, Postmodern Pooh, which included a paper on ‘The Fissured Subtext: Historical Problematics, the Absolute Cause, Transcoded Contradictions, and Late-Capitalist Metanarrative (in Pooh) ‘ by a Marxist called Carla Gulag who compares Pooh to Chairman Mao.
But what’s the point of parody when real life does it so much better? There are more than a hundred diff erent presentations listed including: ‘Disney Does Derrida: Joanne Rowling as a Writer of Our Times’, and ‘Parallels in Tyranny: Voldemort, The Ministry of Magic, and Jewish Persecution’ – and why invent Carla Gulag when there’s somebody called Todd J Ide presenting a paper on ‘Comrade Potter: A Marxist Reading of Harry Potter’?
I’m not entirely sure what Bethan is going to make of this. But then, I discover, there’s quite a few things that I hope are beyond Bethan’s comprehension. On the fi rst night, I stand waiting to go into the Great Hall for dinner. It’s been billed as ‘a chance to sample British food’ and there’s a rumour that it’s ‘something called shepherd’s pie’. I’m hoping this isn’t true.
So, I say to the two women next to me, why are you here? Although in truth I think I already know: such-wonderfulbooks, JK Rowling-a-genius etc.
‘It’s just great to be able to talk to other people about Harry Potter,’ says the first one, Lisa. I nod my head earnestly. ‘Particularly,’ she says, ‘Harry Potter porn.’
Harry Potter porn? I say.
‘Harry Potter gay porn,’ she corrects me. ‘We write it. It’s called slash fi ction. You take the characters and you imagine them in diff erent scenarios. There’s het fiction too, where they think the characters are straight. Whereas we assume that everyone is bisexual until proven otherwise.’
What can I say? Lisa is 38; she’s a paralegal and lives in New York. Her friend, Hally, is 26, and a student. They just seem like perfectly nice, educated, middle-class women. Who write homoerotic fiction about wizards. By Lisa’s reckoning, at least half the delegates are engaged in writing fan fi ction, ‘and there’s fan fi ction with plot, and then there’s fan fi ction which is just sex. But we sub-divide ourselves into who you ship.’
‘Who you put together. I do Remus-Sirius, but Hally here she does Harry-Draco .’
Draco, his arch enemy? I say. The little blond one?
Lisa nods her head.
I had no idea that Harry was a porn star, I say.
‘Oh yes. You should see some of the things that Harry gets up to!’
I’m really not sure I want to, actually. And at dinner I sit next to a fresh-faced pair of sisters: Olivia, a nurse, and Abbi, a teacher, who’ve driven nine hours from New Mexico to be here. I try to judge if they, too, are into hardcore wizard-onwizard porn.
Do you do … ‘slash’? I ask Olivia and Abbi.
‘No!’ they say. ‘We’re fans, but we’re not freaky fans.’
Later, though, I fall into conversation with Krissie and Kat. Krissie is 20 and works in a toy store in California. And Kat, 18, is a student from Toronto. They’re so puppyishly enthusiastic and so glowing with youthful innocence. And then they tell me their ‘ships’.
Krissie writes Harry-Draco. And Kat ‘does everyone with anyone’.
But why gay porn, I ask them. ‘It’s like how men like lesbian stuff,’ says Kat. I give them my email address and when I get back to London, two of their stories are waiting for me. I can’t bring myself to quote them, though, in case a stray child has got past the late-capitalist metanarrative paragraph.
The next day, Rachael Livermore, a 25-year-old from London, gives me one of the best explanations of the phenomenon that I hear. It started with Kirk in Star Trek, she says. Fan fiction writers needed a romantic partner for him, and since there wasn’t a suitable female character, he got paired off with Spock. It’s slash as in Kirk/Spock.
‘I do Snape and Harry. And Snape/ Lockhart. There are female characters in Harry Potter but they’re just not very interesting. Ginny ‘s like the popular girl at school who picked on us, and Hermione is just annoying.
‘It’s empowering. We are reversing the gender roles. We are saying we like porn: deal with it. A lot of men don’t really know what to make of it.’
And what do you do for a living? I ask Rachael.
‘I’m an accountant,’ she says.
But then everyone needs an escape. It just amazes me that for 1,200 people this involves sitting in darkened rooms listening to presentations on ‘Harry Potter and the Sanctity of Everyday Life: JK Rowling’s Complex Treatment of the Trope of Normalcy’ .
This last one is by Dr Gwen A Tarbox, a professor of English literature at Western Michigan University. She did another talk I went to called ‘Bridging the Gap Between Scholars and Fans in a University-level Harry Potter Course’ so if anybody is qualifi ed to talk on the subject of Harry Potter as an academic discipline, she is.
So is there such a thing as Harry Potter studies? I ask.
‘I would say so. There’s such a large body of criticism now and the level of scholarship is really excellent.’
But isn’t it the type of thing that gives Eng Lit a bad name, I ask her. Aren’t you just playing to the crowd?
‘We need to recognise that just because something’s popular doesn’t mean it’s bad. There’s a great deal we can learn about things that are popular. And it’s popular among such a diverse group of readers.’
And then we have a little spat in which I say, Yes, but she’s not Nabokov, is she? and she comes back at me with ‘major philosophical themes’ and ‘a satirist in the tradition of Swift who debunks the idea of arbitrary authority’.
The biggest problem, she says, in talking at a Harry Potter conference is ‘understanding who the audience are’. You can see the plus side, though. I stumble across a queue in one of the corridors. There are a hundred or so people lining up to hear ‘Snape’s Eyes’ by Dr Edmund Kern.
Snape, who’s been the baddie through six books, is almost universally adored, something which puzzles me until Debbie McLain, a volunteer and ‘stay-athome mum’ who’s the main organiser of Lumos, explains it to me by saying that ‘a lot of women are drawn to the characters who they hope may experience redemption’. Oh yes, I think, JK Rowling and the Complex Trope of Female Delusion.
According to the programme notes, Dr Kern holds the chair in history at Lawrence University. His talk, however, is just a nice old-fashioned piece of lit crit based on a close reading of the text. It’s the type of thing that English professors did before theory was invented. Which is all well and good – it just has nothing whatsoever to do with his academic speciality. Not that anyone notices.
The audience is rapt. He receives thunderous applause. He’s treated less as a history prof, more as an international rock god. And he’s not theonly one. There’s a group of teenage boys from the website, Mugglenet, who appear to think that they’re in a boy band. And, at a talk by Steve Vander Ark, the creator of another website, the quite scarily encyclopaedic Harry Potter Lexicon, there are whoops and cheers and screams when he puts up a map of Britain and sighs when he points out that as we wait for book seven, the final book, ‘We’re at a unique moment in history. We don’t know how it will end. We are living through this amazing time which no one, no one will ever experience again.’
I particularly like the way he calls JK ‘Jo’ with a quasi-religious type of awe. She supports fan fiction, apparently, of the non-sexual variety. But I can’t even begin to think what she would make of it all. There’s something of early Beatlemania to it. And, even in Vegas, one of the oddest places on earth, the barmen in the hotel casino shake their heads at me when they see my name tag. ‘You’re with the convention?’
I am, I say. They give me a long, hard look. You’ve heard of Star Trek conventions, I say. It’s not so different.
‘Nuh-huh,’ says one. ‘There it’s all about the merchandising and maybe, you know, you get to meet William Shatner. It’s not about wearing a cape and going to lectures.’
But then, there’s something so very female about this. It’s the first time that women have ever dominated fandom in this way, and so of course it’s all about doing extra homework and making sure your uniform is nicely pressed. It’s really not a coincidence that one of the most popular characters to dress as is Hermione Granger, Harry’s over-achieving little-miss-perfectionist friend.
Everybody conscientiously troops in and out of the lecture rooms regardless of the fact that some of it is, quite frankly, rubbish. There’s something slightly unseemly about watching a whole load of academics leaping on a bandwagon. I make a point of going to ‘Lies, Damn Lies and the Daily Prophet: A Look at Journalism and Ethics in Harry Potter’ since although most people swoon when they hear my adorable accent, one female Harry Potter refuses to answer my questions on the grounds that ‘the British press lack ethics and principles’.
Hmm, I think, and march into the seminar ready to do battle. But from what I can figure out, and I don’t think I was missing anything major, the main point is a comparison between Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic, and Joseph Stalin.
I listen to a sub-GCSE level Lacanian critique and then ‘Comrade Potter: A Marxist Reading’ in which the speaker claims that a Nimbus 2000 broomstick is ‘coveted not because of its usefulness but because of the value assigned to it by society’. Even I know that this isn’t true. It’s actually pretty useful for Quidditch too. And then ‘Disney does Derrida’, which is subtitled ‘Joanne Rowling as a Writer of Our Times’ when it could equally be ‘When in Doubt Chuck in the Word “Deconstruction” and See the Suckers Lap it Up’.
Frederick Crews’s sequel, Postmodern Pooh, is infinitely more ridiculous than his Sixties original because in the past 40 years, the literary theory establishment has almost collapsed under the weight of its own jargon. I think that if I hear the word ‘discourse’ again, I’ll scream, although it’s when I go to ‘Out of Bounds: Transgressive Fiction’ that I get really annoyed. It’s a seminar analysing Hermione Granger-Professor Snape fan fiction. That is to say, a relationship between a teenage girl and a fortysomething man, which often, it transpires, takes the form of a rape narrative. There are 200 women in the room. And a whole lot of talk about female empowerment and gender reversals, but, frankly, if it was 200 men talking about rape narratives involving underage schoolchildren, it would be a matter for the police, and I don’t think this is empowering anybody.
But then, when it comes to fan fiction, there really are no limits. In ‘Written in the Dark of Nox: Fan Fiction and the Social Taboo’, the speaker does a quick poll to see who present writes narratives involving bestiality. Hands shoot up. There’s just one man in the room who spends the entire session staring at the carpet.
I corner him on the way out. ‘I came with my girlfriend!’ he says, quickly.
I thought it was just about liking nice cuddly wizards, I say.
‘So did I!’ he says. ‘Jeez! I mean.’
I head out into the sunlight. I need to get away from the windowless rooms and the sex-with-animals. There’s a game of water Quidditch going on in the swimming pool and I bump into Olivia and Abbi, my non-freaky friends from New Mexico, and Lisa and Maria, another set of sisters who are a GP and a TV producer from Sydney, and Megan and Mallory, two shiny-eyed, shiny-haired 21-year-old twins from Washington.
There are so many mother-daughter pairs, so many sisters and female friends all cutting loose from their families, their children, their parents. Over three days, I start to realise why so many of them need Harry Potter. The oncology nurses, and the social workers, and the ones like Abbi, a single mother of two young children, whose eyes shine when she talks about JK’s own personal history.
They all dress the same as each other in the way that teenagers do. But then, fitting in, I think, is a very female thing; it’s about being interested in and understanding relationships. And this, it seems to me, is why fans enjoy the books. The fact the characters can do spells is really neither here nor there.
Megan and Mallory, it turns out, are making a documentary about ‘Wizard Rock’, bands that base themselves on characters from Harry Potter. ‘Isn’t it so amazing that the books have inspired so much creativity?’ they say.
And, well, actually, it is. It’s all amazing. And seeing anybody, let alone 1,200 people enthused with joy about anything is really quite uplifting. And not just anything. Books! It makes my girlish, swotty heart swell with pride. The fact is that I agree with Gwen Tarbox. ‘There’s a great deal we can learn about our culture from studying this,’ she told me. I think she’s right, I’m just not sure exactly what, although I’m willing to place a bet on it having ‘discourse’ in the title. Or possibly ‘trope’.
A potted history of Harry
1990: JK Rowling has the idea for Harry Potter while she is on the train from Manchester to King’s Cross. She begins writing what will become Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone that evening.
1995: JK Rowling fi nishes the fi rst book and types it out on an old typewriter. She sends it to an agent and a publisher. Several publishers reject the novel. Her literary agent warns her, ‘You do realise, you will never make a fortune writing children’s books?’
1997: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is published by Bloomsbury .
1998: In July, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets goes straight into the No. 1 slot in BookTrack’s bestseller list. In September , the retitled Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is published in the USA.
2000: In June, JK Rowling is awarded an OBE. In July, ‘Pottermania’ takes hold as bookstores worldwide begin holding events to coincide with the midnight release of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. It breaks all records to become the fastest-selling book ever.
2003: The word ‘muggle’ is added to the OED: ‘a person who possesses no magical powers. Hence: a person who lacks a particular skill or skills.’
To date, the books have sold more than 300 million copies and been translated into 47 languages; more than any other book except the Bible.
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