This post appeared on Austen Authors in November 2016. As I am often asked why I choose to spend part of my writing career authoring JAFF (Jane Austen Fan Fiction), perhaps Melanie Rachel’s explanation of what she experienced at the most recent Jane Austen Society of North America’s (JASNA) annual gathering will offer an explanation. Despite what some may think, my Ph. D. does not go to waste.
At the JASNA annual conference last October, I was fortunate enough to meet with a number of JAFF writers and editors.
Did I participate in a little fangirling? Well, yes.
During the course of our various discussions, the topic of the divide between the Jane Austen fandom and Jane Austen academics arose, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
I’m one of those people who has a foot in both camps (a Ph.D. in English and author of two JAFF novels, working on another), and in the Jane Austen universe, I’m certainly not alone. Research on Austen herself and on the historical era of the Regency (versus the Georgian and Victorian) is very important for the composition of good stories. We need to know which words were in use at the time and what they meant, which of society’s “rules” were rigid and which were flexible, who was eligible to apply for a special marriage license, or how accurately a rifle could be fired. I now know that the date of the “Season” was not set in stone, but was based on Parliament’s calendar. I also know what happened to seats in the House of Lords when the current holder of the title was too ill to continue, but still alive. (No, his heir could not take that seat if he didn’t already hold a title of his own). Understanding that the years of the Regency supported a fashionable world whose moral sensibilities were more akin to the Roaring 20’s than the more conservative Victorian era is essential to our world-building. Knowing how Austen viewed her world, through the letters we still have and the research of “clever, well-informed” scholars, is incredibly helpful. So we can surmise, at least, that most writers are very happy to have the information or topics of speculation provided by academics.
The reverse cannot really be said, as a whole, for academics. I say this with some disappointment, and with a nod to my own failures in convincing other academics that fandom is serious business. The notion that Fan Studies, even when we’re dealing with classic literature, isn’t a “real field,” is pervasive, though I suspect, like culture studies in general, more acceptance will come as younger students join the ranks of doctoral candidates.
I do amuse myself, from time to time, by thinking of Fitzwilliam Darcy (pre-Hunsford, of course) as the snobby full professor who has an unlimited professional development fund and is assigned a large faculty office with lots of windows. Elizabeth Bennet? She’s an assistant professor of cultural studies who has to beg for conference registration funds and is shuffled off to a windowless office in the basement, next to the soda machine. Hey, maybe I should write that . . .
Of course, this kind of fractious camp-building isn’t limited to Jane Austen. I’ve seen this kind of divide at least since my own graduate school days, where literature students turned up their noses at MFA students, devaluing the creative and championing the analytical. I wondered then, and I wonder now, whether my fellow academics understood who was writing the very books they spent their own careers dissecting. Aren’t primary sources, like novels, our “first cause”?
As I’d been warned, this tension clearly played out at the JASNA conference in Huntington Beach, which, for the record, I enjoyed enormously and highly recommend (next year it’s being held in Kansas City, Kansas, and will focus on Persuasion).
As one does at conferences, I attended several presentations. I had particularly anticipated hearing “Jane Austen’s Lives and Deaths Through Fan Fiction.” The speaker was a graduate student writing a dissertation about JAFF.
At last, I thought, someone building a bridge between fandom and academia.
Unfortunately, while the young woman was clearly intelligent and the presentation well-rehearsed, it was also rather reductive. She focused purely on the published fiction, reading a random selection of novels that had received 1, 3, and 5 stars on their Amazon reviews (she told us she’d read about 125 in total). Therefore, 2/3 of her chosen texts were those most JAFF readers found lacking in some important way. In addition, while 125 books might sound like a lot to anyone who doesn’t read JAFF, it’s a rather small sample of the whole.
Once she read each book it was neatly categorized by trope. She mentioned as an example those stories that focused on excusing Darcy’s poor behavior at the beginning of the novel. Instead of arrogant, he is shy, or troubled over his younger sister’s near elopement, or even suffers from social anxiety (I call these writers Darcy apologists, and it’s true, they are legion). Until I inquired, though, she made no mention of those writers who also create Darcys whose behavior is much worse than in canon. All in all, they even themselves out, and it would have been fascinating to explore why we respond to Darcy this way when he’s really hardly in the book at all.
Why do we want Darcy to be a better man before he’s done the hard work he needs to do? Is our impulse to spare Elizabeth Bennet from a humiliating experience, or to mitigate its impact? Or is it that we simply want our romantic leads to be closer to perfect than they are? On the other side, why are we taking our anger out on Darcy by making his infractions worse? Why would we want to do that? Is there a larger narrative we are accepting or rejecting?
A second trope was that of kidnapping, primarily Georgiana or Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice fan fictions. The trope certainly exists. But so do spoofs on the trope—see, for example, JanetR’s humorous “Again?” Yet there was no conversation to be had on that subject, either.
When we write, our stories say a lot about us. I am really more interested in figuring out why these tropes exist than I am that they exist at all.
After the presentation, I approached the speaker to ask whether she had visited any of the online communities. While she was aware that they existed, she had not included in her research any of the JAFF sites that are the heart of the writing. She missed those spoofs, she missed the humor, the short stories, the unpublished novel-length stories, the sharing of plot bunnies, the amazing outpouring of time and effort of writers helping writers (particularly new writers), and, at least at one such site, A Happy Assembly, the tête-à-tête folder where not only do historians deeply immersed in events and culture of the time answer author questions, the discussion of Austen’s novels themselves continues to be held in minute detail. A recent discussion, for example, focused on what it might mean that Sir Lewis de Bourgh had his windows glazed (the answer being that this was a newer home compared to say, Pemberley) and how the notion that Rosings was not from a family with an ancient name might mean to Lady Catherine’s designs on Fitzwilliam Darcy. If any of my undergraduate literature students pointed out a detail like that in an essay, I would be beyond thrilled.
This is why the presence of fan fiction readers, writers, and supporters at conferences like JASNA is so important. If we want the opportunity to change the trajectory of the discussion, or even influence it a bit, we have to be present, to talk about the focus of these kinds of studies and why the relationship between academic and fandom need not be acrimonious. Not to mention you get to meet some fabulous people! This year, one of the keynote speakers was Richard Knight, who discussed the ongoing care of Chawton, the estate where Jane lived the final eight years of her life. Next year, Amanda Root, who played Ann Elliot in perhaps the best-known Persuasion film adaptation, will be speaking about that role.
The speaker will go back to her university and write her dissertation, and likely remain fixed on published JAFF books to the exclusion of the very lively online communities from which most of those stories sprang. This is not a tragedy. We will all survive the indignity. But we can do better.
Melanie Rachel is the author of Courage Rises and Courage Requires, both available for sale on Amazon. Her current modern WIP, Headstrong, is posting at A Happy Assembly. She holds a Ph.D. in English from Penn State University and currently lives in Tucson, Arizona, with her family and their freakishly athletic Jack Russell Terrier. She fell in love with Jane Austen as a young camper and then camp counselor, reading under the stars with the help of a flashlight. Extra batteries were considered essential camping gear.
Headstrong (WIP) : http://meryton.com/aha/index.php?showtopic=18096&st=0